By Robert Freedman, senior editor, REALTOR® Magazine
When Benny McMahan helped the Greater Dallas Association of REALTORS® start its own credit union in the late 1970s, the banking landscape was a lot different than it is today. Credit unions back then weren’t designed to be a depositor’s primary financial institution.
Rather, they were a place where members would enjoy good passbook savings account rates and get good terms on loans for big-ticket items like homes, cars, and college degrees. Banks were the financial institutions that people went to for their checking accounts, credit cards, and business lines of credit.
But that was then. Today, credit unions look much more like full-service banks—but without the for-profit motive. That’s important, because with big banks offering only modest rates on certificates and still hesitant to lend, you might be wondering if it’s time to try some alternatives for your primary banking.
There’s no mystery where McMahan thinks you should go: credit unions, and not just any credit union, but the one he started working for just last week: REALTORS® Federal Credit Union.
McMahan was tapped to head up industry relations. It’s a newly created post for the long-time industry veteran to give the credit union direct contact with state and local associations of REALTORS®, brokerages, both large and small, and the real estate franchise companies. McMahon’s most recent post was as CEO of the Texas Association of REALTORS®.
Right off the bat he wants to make sure local associations know how their members can benefit by doing their banking with the credit union, starting with the good rates on deposit accounts and on loans, which are hallmarks of all credit unions. But there are also the benefits that are unique to this particular credit union: the REALTOR®-friendly loan underwriting. When this credit union looks at your loan application, it won’t penalize you for being an independent contractor or for not having a steady paycheck. “It can be hard to find banks to provide loans when you’re in that situation,” he says.
The REALTOR®-friendly character of the credit union is a theme NAR and the credit union have been hitting a lot since the institution was launched in early 2009 but, as McMahan says, no matter how much the message gets out, many members have either never heard it or, if they have, haven’t kept it top of mind to act on it. “A lot of times you’ll talk to a member about the credit union and they’ll say, ‘You know, I remember reading something about that and I’ve been meaning to go back to that and join.’”
That’s where the associations, brokerages, and franchise companies come in.
McMahan says local associations are particularly well-positioned to let members know about the benefits because they’re their members’ first point of contact on so many different matters. “Members are in and out of their building constantly,” he says. “They’re doing the MLS. They’re going to education programs.” What better place to let members know there’s a REALTOR®-friendly financial institution available to them than their colleagues at their association?
As his first order of business, he’s launching an ambassador program in which participating associations will appoint an ambassador from among their staff to reach out to new and existing members to let them know about the credit union benefits. McMahan will be encouraging association executives to pick as their ambassador whomever they think is the best fit, but if they’re looking for suggestions, he would say someone well-placed like a membership services manager, because “They already have a lot of contact, especially with new members as they come in.”
He’s setting up the first ambassador training program next month at the NAR Conference & Expo in New Orleans and already some 200 association professionals are expected to attend. The session will last about three hours and will include lunch.
The program piggybacks on the credit union’s existing partners program, in which associations are encouraged to join the credit union themselves. That program has been a great starting point and will continue with the addition of the ambassador program. “We have a large participation as far as associations being depositors and we want to keep that type of relationship,” he says, “but we also want to work through those associations to get direct to the member.”
McMahan is quick to point out the benefits to associations of banking with the credit union, not the least of which is the good terms they can get for their financial needs, like refinancing the mortgage on their building or constructing or acquiring new space, or even making a bulk purchase of lockboxes for sale to their members. “Instead of going to a local bank to get the financing for those new lockboxes, the credit union will make that financing available to them,” he says.
McMahan is ready to start reaching out to brokerages and franchise operations as well, although that will probably start in earnest immediately after the NAR conference. When he does get going, he’s confident brokers and company executives will be receptive to hearing about the credit union, both as something to recommend to their sales associates and as something that might make sense for their business. For their associates, the credit union has good rates but it also has a quickly expanding stable of products, including tax-deferred IRA accounts and a host of savings certificates. For the companies, it’s in the process of rolling out business loan products. (More on this.)
McMahan’s experience with credit unions goes back to those days in the late-1970s when he helped the Dallas association launch its credit union. He then later helped merge that credit union with another one, creating what’s known as a multi-sponsored credit union, meaning the institution is organized to serve a variety of membership groups.
Today, the environment for financial services institutions is very different, and the credit union he’s working for is very different, not only in its size and reach but also in the fact it’s a virtual operation.
As a virtual institution, you can bank anytime, anywhere, all online. And if you want to take some cash out, you just go to a participating ATM and do it—almost like taking a walk to your local bank branch. The only difference is that there are far more participating ATMs than bank branches, so you likely won’t have to walk as far. (More on how you do your banking virtually.)
When I last checked with REALTORS® Federal Credit Union, it had almost 6,000 members participating and had assets of close to $80 million. That makes it the largest virtual credit union in the country and also puts it on the high side of mid-sized credit unions—major milestones after not even two years in operation. That gives McMahan a great platform on which to build.
Read up more on what McMahan will be doing in this NAR press release.